James Wilkins' United Pentecostal Church Divorce

The follow has been taken from "The Journey Out of the United Pentecostal Church" by Daniel J. Lewis, copyright 1994. See below for further details. Note that the Jackson College of Ministries closed years ago.

JAMES D. WILKINS, Grand Rapids, Michigan

[James Wilkins served as a professor in the Schools of Missions and Theology at Jackson College of Ministries. He left Jackson in that same tumultuous Spring of 1981 described earlier. After serving in the Foreign Missions Division of the UPC in both France and the West Indies, he withdrew from the denomination. He completed his Masters and Doctoral degrees at The Ohio State University, and currently he is a member of the Christian Reformed Church, serving as an Assistant Professor of French at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.]

Leaving a lifetime religious affiliation is probably one of the loneliest decisions one can make. I remember the day that I wrote my letter of resignation, walked it to the post office, and dropped it in the outgoing mail slot. Those few minutes prior to releasing the envelope seemed endless. I knew that once the contents left my hand, it was finished. There was no turning back. I released it....and returned home. When the resignation was received by the Missions Director, he called immediately wanting to fly down to visit with me and discuss my decision to leave the UPC and the mission field. We finally agreed that I would meet with members of the Missions Board in Hazelwood, Missouri, the location of the denominational building.

My time spent in consultation with my superiors was intense. I sat in the Director's office as one-by-one concerned members of the Missions Board came in to try to reason me out of my decision. Each person was sincere, some extremely emotional. I also met with the General Superintendent the day before returning to Martinique. I returned to my island assignment, agreeing to "sleep on it" for a while and make a decision at a later date. To no avail...I eventually admitted to myself that my original decision was the right one. I should add that all discussions and correspondence with personnel of the UPCI were extremely warm and loving. Still, I could no longer teach something I did not believe was based in Scripture, especially to new converts who themselves struggled with the same issues.

After returning to the United States, I immediately enrolled in graduate school at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. There I continued to attend a UPC church for a time. Then, sensing the difficulty of attending a church that taught a set of doctrines I felt were unbiblical, I embarked on a search for a new church home. I visited Brethren churches, Assembly of God churches, among others. Finally, on the advice of a friend, I attended a Christian Reformed Church, and there found a spiritual oasis. Five years had elapsed.

The most difficult thing for me and for many others was the separation from life-long friends. They are truly brothers and sisters....in a very real sense. These are the people I had grown up with. I knew them, I spoke their language, I moved in their social circles, I taught their children, I had respect for their officials, and I preached in their pulpits. When the social consequences of my decision became apparent to me, I was deeply depressed. I retained the same strong sense of attachment to them, but I knew (having been one of them) that they could no longer feel the same about me. I was now a backslider, a reprobate....I had turned my back on "the truth."

In Spring of 1988, just prior to my joining the Christian Reformed Church, I was in France teaching a group of Ohio State students on a semester abroad program. I made contact with the people and churches I had previously pastored for a short time in the early 1980's as a furlough replacement for the UPC missionaries there. The missionaries and the Christians in France remained close friends. They have shown nothing but genuine love for me, a love I, too, have for them. We do not agree, but we still love. At the time, I was still very depressed over my loss of friends and "roots" at home, a feeling that was made more poignant by my missionary friends, who were encouraging me to finish my doctorate and then come to work with them in France as an instructor in their newly-founded Bible school. No one will ever know how tempting that offer was! I would have liked nothing more than to abandon plans to teach at a university Stateside and spend the rest of my life teaching and working in France, especially with the people I had worked with earlier. I was on the verge of recanting and returning to the UPC.

When I returned home, some very dear friends (who also had left the UPC at about the same time as I) contacted me. I told them what I was considering. Their advice (and some tears) flowed. I was being torn in two very different directions. I now had a very close network of friends in the UPC and out of the UPC (former members). What convinced me to stand by my earlier decision was an analogy given me by a friend I had known for years. She compared the decision to separate from the UPC to a divorce. "After the divorce" she said, "one feels the pain more and more keenly, to the point where doubts cause you to think that perhaps you should not have divorced. You still have feelings of affection for the other party, and perhaps you should have tried harder to keep things together. Perhaps it would work if you tried again. But, it does not work." I still had tremendous love for the people, but because of the gospel, we could not remain "married." That analogy satisfied me then, and it does so to this day.

The pastor of the Christian Reformed Church urged me to come to church and to give my mind and spirit a rest from the battles it had been fighting. He said, "Jim, you need a spiritual and mental vacation." He was right. I began attending church to get to know Christ again, not to light theological fires. This is the point I want to convey to those who are now leaving the UPC. Find a place of worship where Christ and the cross are central in singing, preaching, praying and fellowship. Rejoice in the simplicity and wonder of the gospel of grace. Cease to dwell on the pain or anger associated with your decision to "divorce." That is not an easy task, but it is doable. Soon you will find yourself a part of another church family, one that loves God, His Word, and you--and one that you can love in return. Resist efforts by family and friends still in the UPC to make you feel guilty. You belong to Christ....He is your Lord, not another. Reread the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, from beginning to end. You will find a deeper appreciation for the words of Christ and the apostles. "Difficult" passages will no longer seem difficult. Finally, in the trying, lonely moments, know that you are not alone. Others, especially those who have separated previously, are interceding for you. "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men" (Romans 14:17-18 NIV).

"The Journey Out of the United Pentecostal Church" by Daniel J. Lewis may be accessed for free in PDF format here. Much thanks to Dan Lewis for permission to distribute his book.

Posted June 20, 2014


August 23, 1997
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